Skykomish- Steelhead Nirvanna?

This has nothing to do with the poor SH return and impending river closure, but I want to instigate a discussion about the quality of the lower stretch of the Sky for fly fisherman. In what many refer to as the bible for steelheading (Trey Combs Steelhead Fly Fishing), Trey states," If I could design and build a winter steelhead fly fishing river to suit my every fancy, I would use the eight miles of the Skykomish between Sultan and Monroe as the model."

This has always bothered me. Maybe there are types of holding water I haven't learned to fully appreciate yet. I have fished the Sky many times and can think of only 5 truly A+ runs for fly fishermen over this whole stretch. This could be due to changes in river over time as one of my favorite runs filled in last year. In many ways I find the upper stretch of the Sky, the Sauk, and Skagit looking more "fishy" in many ways. They have more clearly defined runs, better rock structure for current shelter, etc.

Would you agree with Trey"s POV? This isn't a vailed attempt to finding out people's favorite spots, but an attempt to provoke a more indepth discussion about the qualities of water that best hold SH that are best fished with a fly rod. How would you compare the quality of the lower stretch of the Sky to other big rivers in our area?

Ubiquitous response to what defines SH holding water is any water from your knees to shoulder that flows at walking speed. The next sagely advice is to understand that SH are seeking a balance between energy conservation and a sense of safety (i.e. seem near faster current for a fast escape). My next level of quality is current funnel (fast current moving from near side to far side) that hopefully funnel fish to the near side and hopefully allow for effective swinging. There aren't many stretches that fit this bill and offer good rock structure on the lower stretch.

Joe Smolt
I can think of four runs that fish well for me year after year between Two Bit and Ben Howard, and three runs that consistently fish well between Ben Howard and Lewis Street Bridge. The problem with this stretch of the Sky is that only one run can be reached without a boat. The problem with the lower Sky is the lack of bank access.

The upper sky for summer runs is another matter.


Active Member
Your probably both correct. Remember Trey wrote that bit of info YEARS ago; rivers change every year. Holding water at place "A" probably filled in and moved up/down stream a few hundred yards.
There are a lot more rude sled jockies on the lower Sky now than when he wrote it too. That classic water seems less appealing when 20 lines have boondogged through it by 9am.
I can think of a half dozen or so spots in that streatch that are pretty classic swinging water though. Broken surface, right depth, current seams in the right places.
I have fished it and didn't see the majesty in it. Maybe it is because I am ignorant to the river or maybe it is just because I grew up fishing the Yakima and Deschutes with really well defined runs and pools. I would take the Deschutes over the Sky any day.


Piscatorial predilection
Got to agree with "fredaevans", that lower section has changed a lot since Trey's writing.
Having fished it many times over the years I can't say it's a favorite of mine. I would, however, classify the upper middle section from "Big Eddy" to Startup as much more classic in it's structure, with many good runs available by boat, and on foot if you know where to access it by foot.
Usually a considerable hike is necessary for bankes, like me, most of the time. But it is usually more than worth the effort. I especially like that area when flows are down, as in summer, or like they were just before this rain. There are some places, when flows drop to the 1,500 cfs range, or lower, to wade across that get you into beautiful boulder runs, not fished on a regular basis.
But Trey knew what he was talking about for the time, no doubt about that.



Active Member
Joe -
I would have to agree with Trey - I know of no water that consistently provides such classic water for the ease of fishing a swung fly. Yes the river changes with the floods yet the amount of that classic water (though in different locations) has remained remarkly the same over the time I have watched/fish the river (40+ years).

By classic water I mean water that one can step into a easily identified run, wade to knee deep water make a moderate cast, one mend, and let it swing and be confident that one is fishing effectively. One can repeat that same cast over runs that measured in 10s of yards, in some case as much as a hundred or more yards in length and such water ocurring at the rate of nearly 1 run/mile. Know of no water where it would easier to introduce a newbie to the sport.

I agree whole heartly the water doesn't produce the fish it once did but that is not due to the quality of the runs but rather fewer fish, more fly rods on the water, changing and increasing numbers of boat anglers etc. However Trey was talking about the water and not the fishing - even at the time of his writting there was water that more consistently produced fish for me but none of those spots were anywhere near the "classic water" of the Sky.

What makes the Sky uniques is probably a combination of river size, gradient, and substrate size. Just for comparison during the late 1980s - perhpas the good old days of steelhead fly fishing there may not have been as much classic water in the Sauk between Darrington and say the Native hole (12 miles) as one could find in a single run on the Sky. That didn't mean that the Sauk didn't produce fish for the fly angler - It did in spades. Just success on the Sauk put a higher premium on stream craft, casting, and line control.

My thoughts


the Menehune stole my beer
Trey didn't have to worry about tweakers either. Those can ruin your day. and the jetsleds............
I guess the key point of distinction for me is rock structure and river structure that allows one to effectively fish the run. I agree with Papafish and prefer the upper stretch for this reason. So many runs in the upper stretch have rocks of softball size and larger that looks fishy. Run widths are smaller so you can more throughly cover the water. Lower stretch has fairly uniform bottoms. As a newbie, I was daunted by 100+ yrd runs with no visibly apparent difference in bottom structure along the stretch. Where would the steelhead prefer to hold? Needle in a haystack? Many of the well known runs are big. My casting skills allow me to touch only a portion of the water in the run.



Well-Known Member

As mentioned, Trey was taking a snapshot in time of the Sky during the relatively short period of 1989-90. And he used a jet sled to access the river.

I rarely fish the Sky, but I agree with Smalma. I think there is more good fly water compressed in a few river miles on the Sky than elsewhere. There is good water also on the Sauk and Skagit, but it tends to be spread out over greater distances. It keeps an angler busy looking for the likely spots.


Salmo g.


Active Member
I also agree with Smalma that Trey was correct about the Sky between Sultan and Monroe. There is a lot of great water in that section of river and the runs are much closer together than on rivers like the Sauk, as well as much easier to read and see than on the Skagit, which is one of my favorite winter rivers.
I just checked my notes and it was nearly twenty years ago when Trey and I used to fish the Sky together. The fishing was very good for the swung fly and that is how we fished. As Curt and others have noted, the water is about the same but there are certainly fewer steelhead per angler now and the sleds tend to make it tough on those of us who enjoy working from the bank.
As was noted , Trey was marking a moment in time in his statement about the Skykomish River. That is what a good writer does; freeze-frame places and moments that carry forward to give us a frame of reference.
One afternoon as we sat on the bank at Ben Howard enjoying a touch of Fundador, Trey noted, "no matter where I travel, I always consider the Skykomish my home river."
Good Fishing,


Piscatorial predilection
searun said:
One afternoon as we sat on the bank at Ben Howard enjoying a touch of Fundador, Trey noted, "no matter where I travel, I always consider the Skykomish my home river."
Good Fishing,
iagree it's mine too, and I fish it more than any other. :thumb: